Here are two movies I’ve waited to see and am glad I’ve seen – one I enjoyed watching and another I appreciated – but neither one left me as satisfied as I had hoped.
The Last Station has a delightful cast. Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren play Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sophia during the last weeks of his life. James McAvoy plays Tolstoy’s private secretary and Paul Giamatti his loyal follower.
The film, which is based on a novel, seems more like an adaptation of a play but without the historical notes. Basically, Mirren and Giamatti are struggling over the publication rights to Tolstoy’s work. Mirren, his wife of 48 years, wants the income from the books to support her family. Giamatti, as Vladimir Chertkov, wants the books to be in the public domain so that “the people” will always have access to them.
Chertkov is a devoted Tolstoyan, part of a group following the philosophical teachings of Tolstoy, which are based largely on the Beatitudes. All of this is happening shortly before the Russian Revolution. Viewers who bring in some of the literary and historical context will appreciate the film more than others. Everyone will appreciate Plummer and Mirren, who were both nominated for Oscars for these performances.
Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke won the top prize at Cannes in 2009 with The White Ribbon, a story about evil lurking just beneath the bucolic beauty of a small, German village shortly before the beginning of World War I.
The stark and stunning black and white cinematography perfectly complements this story where most people seem evil or willing to overlook evil or even be complicit in it to maintain the status quo in the community.
Our narrator, thinking back on the events of the village leading up to the War, is removed from both of those categories and cannot fathom what is really going on behind closed doors in the village. The young girl he courts seems equally guileless, and it is probably a good thing that she doesn’t stay in this village very long.
There are a few sequences in the film that I appreciate madly. The central idea is compelling: the sins of adults – cruelty, bullying, sexual abuse, physical abuse, etc. – will be visited on generations to come in an unbroken cycle in this rigid patriarchy with the Baron, the steward, and the pastor at the top of the community hierarchy.
There are times, however, when the pacing of the film seems a little off. It would benefit from trimming 20-25 minutes from the runtime. And, I think it would benefit from a bit more context. Is the idea that all villages are like this one under the surface? Is this the grand explanation for how the Nazis gained active participation and complicity in Germany and Austria? Or, is Eichwald an aberration among German villages?
I don’t expect easy answers or necessarily any answers because ambiguity adds some richness and reality to films, but The White Ribbon offers so much to think about and so much to appreciate in terms of the visuals and the performances that the feeling it is missing something is more troubling for me than with lesser films.
Of course, the problem could reside with me instead of with the film. Haneke’s films focus on the darker sides of human nature, and these are places that I know exist and occasionally visit but where I don’t want to dwell.